Update, October 6, 2020: This article was originally published on April 27, 2020, and recently updated to include more shoppable masks.
The seamstresses at Tilit were already working from home when Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York put out a call on Twitter.
“On March 20, Cuomo had this call to action, saying that NYC was running out of PPE [personal protective equipment]. ‘Small businesses, small companies, get creative,’ was essentially what his Twitter message said, ‘and start helping out,’” says Jenny Goodman, chief operating officer of Tilit, which makes chef coats, aprons, and other “workwear” items for hospitality workers.
Within hours, the team settled on a no-brainer solution. As Goodman explains it, Alex McCrery, Tilit’s founder, happened to be in the office at that moment. “He cut a mask pattern and sewed a sample, and we were like, ‘Okay, let’s make masks.’”
Tilit is just one of many companies pivoting to masks, as it were. Dozens of apparel companies, big and small, are stepping up to use their facilities or distributors to produce face masks, though the scale and actual products vary. Some companies, like Nike, Eddie Bauer, Ralph Lauren, and Gap, are working to produce clinical-grade equipment that can be used in hospitals and are distributing directly to health care facilities.
Others are making fabric masks for customers, in the hope that their use can free up more medical-grade masks for the frontline workers who need them most. These include companies that typically manufacture aprons and other workwear for kitchen and restaurant use, like Tilit, as well as Hedley & Bennett, Blue Cut, Artifact, and CamCam. Food52 is also selling masks, made of denim and flannel and created in collaboration with canvas manufacturer Steele Canvas.
“With the CDC guidelines in place recommending cloth masks for everyone, and many grocery stores now requiring cloth masks to be worn by customers before entering, it’s safe to say people want to both protect themselves and donate to frontline health care workers at the same time,” says Food52 buyer Aja Aktay, who spearheaded the initiative with Steele Canvas.
Food52 clearly notes online that the masks “are not a substitute for N95 or surgical-grade masks and they are not FDA approved,” a disclaimer echoed on nearly all of the product pages for these masks. Rather, they’re intended for regular folks trying to minimize the risk they pose to others. As Vox.com explained, “Masks can help stop the spread of coronavirus not just by protecting the wearer, but by preventing the wearer — who could be an asymptomatic spreader — from breathing and spitting their germs everywhere.”
Between consumers’ growing awareness of the importance of face coverings and the changed CDC guidance, orders are coming in fast: Food52 sold through its first batch of masks within three days and is working to fulfill the current waitlist of orders by the end of April. At Tilit, Goodman says “the demand is crazy, so we’re literally sewing as fast